The commonly used saying goes something like: “there’s always room for improvement.”
This applies extremely well to sports teams across all leagues, no matter if you’re the cellar-dwelling Houston Texans or the star-studded champion Seattle Seahawks. Every team goes into the off-season looking to add pieces to bolster their rosters, or perhaps discard some dead weight to make room for up-and-coming players from within their organizations.
The reality of the situation is two-fold; for one thing, not every single team will make the improvements they hope to make – it could be a result of extenuating circumstance, or it could simply be a matter of poor management and decision-making from those in charge of building a team’s roster. We can’t forget either, of course, that everyone is trying to improve, so it’s impossible for every single team to improve every single year. Some will regress, some will stay stagnant – the ones that improve will do so on a mix of good personnel moves, team chemistry and a bit of luck.
The other part of this discussion is the fact that teams look at improvement in different ways. Younger teams will be looking for their budding prospects to emerge into productive professionals, while established teams will be looking to take a step closer to winning a championship. Of course, it’s difficult to account for surprise teams, injuries, or any other incidents throughout the season that might turn the tide in a positive or negative way for a franchise. With that in mind, we’ve predicted the top 10 National Hockey League teams who will make the biggest improvements this season based on last season’s performance, off-season moves, and general circumstances that might affect the team in a positive way.
Last season we saw major improvements from teams like Tampa Bay, Dallas and Colorado. So, who will take the next step this year?
10. Buffalo Sabres
Part of the reason the Buffalo Sabres are on this list is the simple matter of them having nowhere to go but up. After a horrendous year last year, they secured a top-3 pick that landed them highly-touted prospect Sam Reinhart in June. Most expected the Sabres to be relatively quiet this off-season, but new general manager was fairly pro-active in accelerating the progression of his roster by adding proven veterans Matt Moulson, Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta. Combine that with the influx of young talent from Reinhart, forwards Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko and defensemen Mark Pysyk, Nikita Zadorov and Ramus Ristolainen, and the Sabres have a good young nucleus to build around that will at least move them out of the cellar this season (which might not be the best thing with Connor McDavid available come next summer).
9. St. Louis Blues
It’s hard to imagine the Blues getting any better, as they already have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL. They managed to find a way, though, specifically by adding Paul Statsny to an already formidable group of centers including David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott. Depth down the middle is key, so solidifying that position, combined with the subtraction of disappointment Ryan Miller means the Blues might finally be able to get past the first-round in the competitive Western Conference.
8. Calgary Flames
The Calgary Flames, like the Buffalo Sabres, should not be getting overly excited about their chances this season. They are another team that is in the discussion to tank for the chance to draft McDavid in the 2015 draft, but new general manager Brad Treliving still made a couple of moves in the hopes that the rebuilding process can move faster than expected. Specifically by adding Jonas Hiller as a (hopefully) stabilizing presence in goal. Mason Raymond and Devon Setoguchi have seen their best years go by already, but they’ll add some much needed scoring touch to a lineup that was devoid of it last season. Don’t sleep on Johnny Gaudreau or 2014 4th overall pick Sam Bennett, both could play prominent roles in a young lineup, similar to what Sean Monahan last season
7. Columbus Blue Jackets
While the Blue Jackets may not have been incredibly active this off-season, they are one of the teams who will improve simply based on progression from within the organization. They weren’t completely idle, of course, shipping out the under-performing R.J. Umberger for buzzsaw Scott Hartnell, who will add even more grit to one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Most importantly, though, will be the the progression of up-and-coming stars Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray. They remain the nucleus of the young Jackets squad that will be looking to win their first playoff series in franchise history after winning their first playoff game last spring.
6. New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils have been a perennial playoff team throughout Martin Brodeur’s tenure as the Devils goaltender. That era appears to have come to an end, though, as Brodeur is still a free-agent and the Devils have already decided to move forward with Cory Schneider as their undisputed #1 goalie. This can almost be looked as addition by subtraction, as Brodeur was shaky throughout most of the season whereas Schneider was solid between the pipes. Brodeur’s reputation was the only thing earning him ice-time, but now the Massachusetts native can finally get a crack at a starting gig unimpeded by older Canadian goaltenders. The additions of Mike Cammalleri and (if he can stay healthy) Martin Havlat will add some scoring punch that was missing all of last season and could at least nudge the Devils closer to a playoff spot.
5. Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators have rarely been ones to throw money around or make any big splashes during the off-season, but they made some shrewd moves this summer that could lead them back to the spring dance. For starters, they’ve injected some much needed change into their coaching staff, reliving longtime bench boss Barry Trotz and his defensive style for the high-tempo, offensive system that Peter Laviolette will bring.
This with the hopes of of putting the “smash” back in Smashville. Combined with some “boom-or-bust” signings – the Preds added Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribiero, Anton Volchenkov and Derek Roy for less than $6 million total, as well as sniper James Neal for practically nothing and, more importantly, a whole season of Pekka Rinne should give the Preds a good chance to get back into the playoff discussion.
4. New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have seemingly been on this kind of list for years and years, and every year they find a way to disappoint. This year, if Lady Luck will be gentle to them (for once), they could surprise in a less-than-stellar Eastern Conference. Many scoffed at the additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, but the fact of the matter is that together they put up solid offensive numbers with the Leafs. If they are asked to focus on being the teams secondary offensive threat, they will be a nice compliment to John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. The addition of an NHL caliber goaltender in Jaroslav Halak helps, but he has to prove that he can handle a full-time goalie’s workload. Granted, a lot has to go right for this team, but if it does they could be a dangerous dark-horse.
3. Dallas Stars
It’s possible to question how a team that only added three players during the off-season could possibly be one of the top-3 most improved teams in the entire league. However, the argument can definitely be made when a team makes a move to acquire the biggest trade-chip on the market and then signs a top-line player – not to mention that those two players have already had success player together. The additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky significantly boost the Stars already potent offense. Young phenom Valeri Nichushkin will also take massive strides this season to top it off.
2. Colorado Avalanche
If the Colorado Avalanche were missing anything from last season’s dynamic and explosive young squad, it was veteran leadership and proven playoff performers. So what did Joe Sakic go and get in the off-season? Jarome Iginla and Daniel Briere. Young stars like Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene will take another step towards becoming elite top-line forwards, Tyson Barrie will be back to compliment a solid defensive corps, and Semyon Varlamov, barring any surprises, will be in Vezina-form again between the pipes (you better be if you’re playing for Patrick Roy).
Did I forget anyone? Ah, yes…after a stellar (albeit short) playoff performance, Nathan MacKinnon is not only going to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump,” he’s going to stomp on it, chew it up and spit it out on his path of destruction. According to reports, MacKinnon looks more explosive and faster than he did last season, which should have opposing defenses and goaltenders shaking in their skates.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Every year, there’s one team that sees the free-agent list, ponders for a moment, then says screw it and literally start making money rain from the sky. The Tampa Bay Lightning was that team this summer, inking no less than 8 players who could play significant roles with the big-club this season, with the most notable names being Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Evgeni Nabokov and Brenden Morrow.
Perhaps more amazing that Steve Yzerman’s shopping spree is that even if the Lightning had signed zero free agents, they would still end up on this list – the arrival of Jonathan Drouin means that we’re on the verge of witnessing what many think will be the next elite “dynamic duo.” If Drouin can get on the same page with the lethal Steven Stamkos, the Lightning will be a force to be reckoned with in the East for years to come.
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